My old housemate from London, Heather, always the inveterate traveler, dropped into Portland for a few days on her way to somewhere, reminding me that I still had the remnants of my roots planted six thousand miles away across an ocean. Hardly had she left when another old housemate turned up unexpectedly. In the course of meeting my partner, Ruth, and catching me up on the London gossip, she mentioned that she had two friends who wanted to come to the Northwest for a longish visit and were looking to swap houses; when she left, I had a piece of paper on which she had jotted a woman’s name and address.
Within a few days I had written to this unknown Rosemary offering her the use of my apartment and my old orange Datsun. We were somewhat surprised when she wrote back by return post saying that never once had she considered coming to Oregon—in fact she hardly knew where Oregon was. Nevertheless, she expressed enthusiasm for the idea.
So in the late summer of 1982, Ruth and I, partners for only three years at this point, settled into the unaccustomed luxury of a terraced house in a rapidly-gentrifying part of Islington. Outside, steps and pillars broadcast old elegance; inside it was shabby in an English genteel kind of way: the armchairs were dusty and the fireplace in the sitting room had blackened the mantle above, where photographs, almost too small to decipher, stood in their ancient frames. The basement kitchen was modern and bright and in the walled garden, soon to be littered with leaves and rotting tomatoes, there was a patio where it was still warm enough for us to eat breakfast with grapes dangling above our heads.
We’d clearly won the better deal, although my Datsun was marginally more comfortable than Rosemary’s wheezy blue Citroen 2CV, with its open-the-window air conditioning. Briefly we wondered how she would react to life in my dingy apartment but soon forgot about her and her partner who were now, presumably, exploring my bookshelves while we browsed hers, pulling out volumes inscribed to Rosemary’s mother by authors of the Bloomsbury group. Photos and letters from Angelica, Bunny, and others of that circle, fell into our laps as we opened the books.
We had planned a relatively long time away from our everyday lives. I needed to be over there, to hear the doves, read The Guardian every morning, and feel my body relax into human interactions that felt familiar. In Portland my life had been overrun with meetings: meetings to plan protests against the Rose Festival, to mediate between lesbians and gay men, to study women’s history, to examine my own prejudices. Sometimes I would rush from one to another in the same evening; I was relishing the thought of the meetingless days ahead when I would be able to take long baths, topping up the hot water and reading until my fingers shriveled.
As usual, Ruth had been overworking as she shouldered the responsibility for a lawsuit that would force Oregon to pay for Medicaid abortions and a precedent-setting suit against a county sheriff for failing to arrest a violent husband as well as teaching sex discrimination at the law school. She would be only too happy to sleep late and wander around London or the narrow lanes of Sussex that I’d been missing.
Although I’d lived in London for ten years before moving to Oregon, it was a somewhat altered London now, since Thatcher’s draconian policies had produced many more homeless people sleeping in the tube stations than before. I noted the poverty, but also noted landmarks I had never before noticed: those rare statues that celebrated a woman who had achieved something in her own right. There was Emmeline Pankhurst next to Parliament; Edith Cavill at Trafalgar Square, even Boudica, the warrior Queen of the Iceni, standing tall behind her pair of horses at Westminster Bridge. What was then referred to as “women’s history” was beginning to be explored: ordinary women’s lives as well as the extraordinary. We were avid readers of the biographies and feminist histories which in many ways mirrored our own ongoing process of becoming visible as who we were.
We began to gear our outings to find tangible proof of the lives of the women we admired, concentrating on gravesites and the homes where they had lived and worked. Ruth especially wanted to find Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, so one morning we set off to look for it in the old St. Pancras churchyard. Neither of us knew that there are two St. Pancras churches—one dating back to 1822 and the other to about 312AD—and we inspected the inscriptions of nearly all the stones in the wrong churchyard before finding the right one.
Her monument is a great square chunk of stone. As we sat on the earth among purple blooms, its warm, slightly rough surface pressed into our backs, insisting that she was more than history, more than legend, more, even, than her inspiring words to which Ruth had introduced me. I saw her as flesh and blood—a living being who might at any moment come striding through the dandelions in her long skirt and boots, grappling with her “melancholy emotions of sorrowful indignation.”
We felt a strange kind of euphoria sitting there, the sun pulling from the ground sweet aromas of earth and plant life that were a relief after the odors of human debris and dirty oil that hung around the nearby railway stations. Lingering, reluctant to leave, we took pictures of each other to document our presence. Nearly two hundred years had passed since The Vindication of the Rights of Women had been published; if only its author could know what the courage and hard work of thousands of women had achieved. We had played a small part in that great effort and had come to believe that changing the world for women would be our life’s work.
We considered inviting some of my old London friends, but decided against it. Back in 1971, the club had been picketed by the Gay Liberation Front whose members stood outside in Bramerton Street chanting, “Out of the closet, into the streets,” and then invaded the premises to pull the plug on the jukebox, leaving the regular patrons mystified.
Hauling black calf-length boots in my suitcase had hardly seemed worthwhile, but I pulled them on over my best jeans, and ran an iron over the dark red tie I’d slipped in at the last minute. Having put on a school tie every day for years, I quickly made the knot and pushed it smoothly up into the hollow of my throat between the points of my black collar. Ruth had pulled a shot silk purple top over her head and was crouching in front of the mirror to slip in dangling earrings and brush on a little mascara. As we walked out of the front door, she took my arm and we walked jauntily in step to the car. Then we drove off down Gray’s Inn Road with the ghosts of Violet Trefusis and Radcliffe Hall hovering nearby.
The unobtrusive door on the side street off The King’s Road was opened a crack by a beefy woman bouncer who took a good look before opening wider and vetting us. I was looking down the narrow, steep stairs, at the bottom of which another door muffled the sound of music from within, when the bouncer slapped me on the back in a moment of hearty butch bonding that almost precipitated me headfirst down to the bar.
As my eyes got used to the thick smoke, I could see women, mostly very butch or very femme, swaying together or eyeing each other on bar stools. I’d seen old photos of the 1930s clientele and retained images of butches in creased pants and white shirts with slicked back DA’s, and femmes in dresses with flared skirts and padded shoulders, their hair rolled back in a sausage from their foreheads. These 1980s dykes were dowdier, although still recognizably attached to one role or the other. Hardly anyone wore jeans, but most of them wore pants of some kind and, since it was hot, the butches had shed their jackets to display short-sleeved nylon-looking shirts, and the femmes a variety of frilly blouses. Down here in the dark, they seemed resigned, as if banished to an underground burrow; I imagined them emerging into the light and clamor of the street, blinking their eyes and ducking their heads, before scurrying off into anonymous lives. But who was that bouffant blonde in the darkest corner? Could it be Dusty Springfield? She was reputed to be a regular. Or was it just a ghost of the Susannah York character in Sister George?
Ruth seemed a bit bemused at finding herself there, even though she was interested. She’d been taken to a gay bar in New York in the early seventies, back when you had to wear three articles of “women’s clothing” and leave your I.D. at home in case of a police raid. For me, although it was undeniably depressing, it was almost exhilarating. I didn’t want to belong there, but in some mysterious way I felt that I did.
We ordered a drink from the bartender, a fiftyish woman who looked us up and down as if wondering how we’d managed to get in. Then we stood up, clinging to each other more than actually making any moves that might be called dancing. I liked the feel of Ruth’s silk shirt under my hand at the small of her back as I leaned over a little to rest my cheek against hers.
“Just imagine,” I ventured into her ear. “This could have been my life if I’d been born even a few years earlier.”
“Or if you hadn’t managed to become one of those troublemaking feminists,” she said drily.
Aware that we were being watched, we pressed our bodies together, thighs and breasts sticky with heat. I looked around at these women who had failed to find the movements of our time, their secrets throbbing along with the lugubrious music. When the smoke became too much for us, we paid our tab and as we left the bouncer gave me a conspiratorial wink.
We’d polished off the French bread, tomatoes, hunks of Cotswold cheese, and olives, and were sprawled sleepily across the tartan rug that served both for eating off and napping on afterwards. When I woke up, Ruth was lying on her back emitting gentle snores. She’d placed her wire-rimmed glasses with their little round lenses beside her on the rug, and her hair, still black threaded with silver, rumpled in waves across her forehead. Who would have thought that I’d be here now, my head resting on the blue jeans of a woman I acknowledged openly as my lover, as she did me?
Later, we drove down to the village of Rodmell and walked past cottages adorned with scarlet runner beans and roses. Lanes like this one with the hump of the Downs rising like a sleeping beast in the distance, still featured in my dreams. Monk’s House appeared on our right, the church spire hovering over its shoulder. Standing closer to the road than I’d expected, it seemed much too small. It wasn’t yet open to the public but Ruth calmly pushed open the wooden gate and walked in.
“There’s no one here,” she called.
I paced up and down outside the fence, catching glimpses of the garden while she peeped through the windows.
“Come and look—there’s a vase here on the windowsill with the initials, VW. It’s one of Vanessa’s.”
As she disappeared round the corner of the house, I kept watch, embarrassed and irritated.
“I can see Virginia’s writing shed back here,” she called in a loud voice.
I longed to see the garden where the two famous elms might still be standing; at the foot of one would be the inscription: “Beneath this tree are buried the ashes of Virginia Woolf: Born January 25, 1882; Died March 28, 1941. Death is the enemy. Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding—O Death. The waves broke on the shore.” I took one step towards the gate but couldn’t bring myself to go in.
Ruth returned holding out an apple on the palm of her hand as if offering it to a horse.
“Oh Lord! Did you pick that off a tree?” I grumbled.
“Yes, sweetie, it’s for you. One of Virginia’s!”
It looked like a Cox’s. That particular crispness would split open and spurt its sweet juice onto my taste buds.
“I can’t,” I said testily and, although aware of her bewilderment, went on, “How could you? In this country we don’t just walk uninvited into peoples’ houses.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake” she said, “Give me a break!”
When you fall in love, you are stunned to discover that the two of you are uncannily alike, that you share an unusual number of interests and opinions, and that everything you do with the other is brighter, clearer, more profound. But then comes the creeping awareness of how different you are. Loving the soul mate is a lot easier than learning to love the stranger.
Ruth looked miserable but neither of us wanted to have an argument at Monk’s House so we wandered down the lane in silence, gradually starting to breathe more easily. It was an afternoon of clover and weak English sun. As we retraced our steps past the church we managed to shake off the sense of finding each other incomprehensible. All it took, at least that time, was a rueful smile and the touch of a hand on a hand. It would be a long time before we came to understand that our different sensibilities could be a gift that gave each of us another set of eyes with which to look at the world.
Further up the lane, stepping carefully around the fresh cowpats left by the herd that had recently trudged down to the milking barn, we were stopped by an elderly man in muddy gardening trousers and Wellington boots.
“Looking for the Woolf house, are you?” he said. “Knew it well in their day, I did!” Clearly, he was dying to tell us about it.
“Mrs. Woolf,” he said, “she was a lovely lady. I remember her coming out of the gate in her long skirt after the cows went down in the afternoon.” He paused for effect.
“Mrs. Woolf would hold up her skirt like this,” (he pinched his thumb and forefinger together) “and make her way between the piles of… evidence. Then she would nod her head and say to me: ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Winters. Very rural around here today isn’t it?’”
I imagined the tall woman, so familiar from photographs, not with Mr. Winters, but setting up her outdoor table with cups and saucers and the silver teapot with its slightly bent finial. There would be a phut-phut-phut as Vita’s motorcar puttered down the lane. And here she came, striding into the garden in her buttoned breeches, a tweed jacket falling open across her silk blouse—Vita so clearly the lesbian. Virginia the…what? Well, at least for this afternoon, Virginia, too, fitted that description, as she passed a digestive biscuit to her lover and took off into one of the famous flights of eloquence which served her well as flirtation.
The River Ouse with its relentless current flowed nearby, hidden by trees. Beyond it and up the hill, my family, long ago, used to take Sunday walks on the springy turf, and just downstream from here my school once brought us on a field trip to observe the lower reaches meandering towards the sea. I had stretched out on the grass that day, shedding my blazer and panama hat, and drawn diagrams of ox-bow lakes in my geography notebook, never realizing how close I was to the author whose words would come to mean so much to me—whose honesty in her diaries and memoirs would inspire me to find words for my own secrets.
On another day, we drove past Wisden Lake, where, I told Ruth, my father used to fish for trout. Once, in my tree-climbing ninth year, I tumbled out of a willow right into the water but my father’s frustration had more to do with my scaring off the fish than with my bruised, weed-draped body emerging from the shallows. On these drives we spun out stories from our lives—there was still so much we didn’t yet know about each other—and sometimes sang songs: old Beatles and Bob Dylan hits, melodramatic renditions of Dusty Springfield favorites, or the Hebrew rounds Ruth tried to teach me. I was fond of the BBC quiz shows on the radio, especially “Brain of Britain,” throughout which I would demand no talking, and fiddle with the tuning knob. Ruth liked to listen to “Yesterday in Parliament” with its raucous argument and clever repartee. Mostly, though, we talked and talked. Once a friend told us that when she and her husband traveled they ran out of things to talk about and would sit across from one another at dinner dredging up only the dullest small talk. Ruth and I never ran out of things we wanted to talk about, tell or ask each other, and thirty-three years later we still prefer one another’s company to any other.
Ruth shouted something that was hard to hear. I caught the words “pub” and “fireplace” and nodded enthusiastically.
We sloshed down the north face of the Downs, slipping on patches of bare chalk and wading through muddy gateways until we reached Underhill Lane. In Poynings, we did, indeed, find a pub with a fireplace beside which we steamed gently while we wolfed down steak and kidney pies, scotch eggs, and a lager.
It was not much after two and we lingered there, putting off the unappealing return to the blustery top of the Downs. After a while I persuaded Ruth that the lane winding along the foot of the escarpment would be less exposed: Ditchling was only six miles away and had a couple of promising addresses in our Ramblers’ Guide. But six miles is a long way when the rain is pouring off the front of your hood in a steady stream, your pack is digging into your shoulders, and your feet squelch with every step. The road was barely wide enough for two cars to pass, and each time one whizzed by it threw water mixed with mud and cow dung over us. When we heard one approaching from behind, we jumped into the ditch or scuttled into a gateway. Soon the world was reduced to the placing of one foot in front of the other; we were stuck inside a curtain of water, our eyes watching only the ground directly ahead. Rain drummed on ponchos and feet acquired a rhythm to which songs began forming in my mind. Once in a while, cows heaved themselves onto their hoofs and approached their fences, lowing seductively to be taken inside for milking or for a nice warm something. By the time we reached the bed & breakfast, set back from the lane behind a hedge, we were too tired and discouraged to go out again. We snuggled together under the duvet until morning, making do with a packet of biscuits.
The next evening, after more hours of trudging along, cold and wet, and a blissful fifteen minutes squashed between sacks of horse pellets inside a chatty farmer’s van, we found a pub on the main street of Steyning that offered us a room up in the attic—a small triangle with sloping beams way too low for my six-foot frame, but there was an electric fire and we collapsed into bed, grateful to drag off our boots. During the night, I woke in the grip of severe menstrual cramps and staggered to my pack, banging my head on the way, to retrieve three potent pain pills. Ruth, a frequent insomniac, was awake. I groaned and pointed at my ovaries. She sighed sympathetically and held out her arms.
Ruth pulled the one book we had brought with us—a slightly damp copy of short stories by Andrea Dworkin—out of her pack, rolled against me, and started to read aloud. Neither of us particularly liked the stories but the sound of Ruth’s voice was soothing. Giving up on the book, we wrapped our legs around each other’s and made it through the night, talking, crying, dozing, and then talking again, while the rain landed on the little skylight in uneven bursts, beating hard for a while and then easing off to a soothing patter. In the darkness, the ghosts of all our longings hovered between us and around us.
By morning, Ruth had a terrible cold and I was well on my way into a migraine. White-faced and nauseous, I lay in the bathtub, oddly located in a corner of the room, while Ruth went downstairs to see what she could scare up to eat. The rain, now banging rudely on the roof, was relentless. Walking was clearly out of the question, but we refused to give up entirely. We would take three buses back to fetch the car and then motor on—though God knows why.
The steamy shelter of the old citroen was a blessing and by the time we approached the village of Bury, its squeaky windshield wipers were sweeping away rain that had become only a light mist. We pushed open the gate to a thatched B & B posing in a picture book rose garden. The carved front door swung open and a welcoming elderly couple offered herb teas and a large room with aromatic sachets on the pillows and hot-water bottles between the sheets. The wife draped all our damp garments above the Aga in the kitchen to dry; then, clucking over Ruth’s stuffed-up head, sent her off to recover under a goose-feather quilt, promising breakfast in bed the next morning.
Exhausted, I sank into a chaise longue in the conservatory, where tentative sunlight was beginning to warm the damp air, and fell fast asleep. When I opened my eyes, it was dusk and I could hear doves calling from the dovecot and our hostess pottering around in the kitchen. Although nothing in my life had exactly resembled this scene with its whiff of fairy tale, it felt familiar to have a mother on loan. Neither Ruth nor I had a mother living now: what a relief it was to know that someone, even a stranger, was taking care of us for a couple of days. All too soon we’d have only our stubbornness and our volatile love for each other to rely on when things got tough.